Content warning: The following article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault, domestic violence, and suicidal thinking.
If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, University Counseling services are available at 609-258-3141, and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 988 or +1 (800) 273-TALK (8255). A Crisis Text Line is also available in the United States; text HOME to 741741.
For two months after I was assaulted, I was detached from emotion in the aftermath, unwilling to admit to myself that what happened to me could have ended my life. Only after processing it could I put a name to it: it was strangulation, and in the context of a sexual relationship, it was domestic violence.
His hands were around my neck. I couldn’t breathe. I tried forcefully inhaling, but no air came through my windpipe. The pressure on my neck increased. I closed my eyes and counted to … Five? Eight? I don’t remember the exact number. I wondered if I was going to pass out. I became aware of a pain in my right thigh. It was his knee, pressing into my leg so hard that I felt like my femur would splinter into a thousand pieces. He was sober. We both were. I don’t remember the rest of that night.
I am a graduate student at Princeton. So is my perpetrator. Sexual assault and domestic violence are not treated with enough seriousness anywhere on campus, but they’re especially an afterthought when it comes to graduate life.
I went through Princeton’s process for reporting domestic violence. It failed to keep me safe.
The campus community has to become more trauma-informed when dealing with sexual misconduct, especially for graduate students. I would not wish the process I had to go through on anyone else.
When I initially reported my assault to the Title IX coordinator, I described my assault as “choking so that I could not breathe and pinning so that I could not move.” I did not understand the gravity of my own situation even when I was reporting it. I was surprised when the Title IX office took swift action to ensure my safety, including adding additional provisions to a standard No Contact Order which banned my perpetrator from large parts of campus. (No Contact Orders are University-enforced mandates preventing parties from making contact with one another or being in the same location at the same time.)
During the short time that I knew my perpetrator, I suffered a series of repeated assaults, increasing in severity over time. My case was severe enough that the Title IX office initially told me that an alternate resolution, where the two parties come to a mutual agreement, was off the table and urged me to pursue a full investigation. They were taking the situation seriously. Perhaps, I hoped, the University might keep me safe.
I didn’t realize all the impacts of the decision to pursue a full investigation. The University’s Sexual Misconduct website says that anyone with information about my allegations could be called in as a witness. I initially assumed that this meant anyone with knowledge about the incident could be called, or people who could provide context about strangulation, violence, or rape. In the end, almost everyone that I asked for emotional help in dealing with my trauma ended up testifying as a witness. With seemingly everyone I knew being called to give testimony, I felt increasingly alone.
In the days following my initial report, I was an emotional mess. All I could think about was my Title IX case. It felt like I spent every waking moment reliving my assaults over and over. I spent most of my time curled up in a ball in my room, having flashback after flashback of being strangled. There was no way to make it stop.
The people who I thought were my friends offered me no support. One person that I used to be friends with accused me of trying to trash my perpetrator’s reputation. Another tried to dismiss the assaults as “just a problem with consent.” Someone else immediately victim-blamed me, suggesting that since I decided to engage intimately with a male, the consequences were my fault. Many accused me of lying. These same people were called in as witnesses, even though none of them had any knowledge of my allegations of violence. These people were spreading false rumors about me — false rumors that eventually became hearsay that I would have to deal with in my case.
My former friends viewed the mere act of reporting my assault as retaliation. Retaliation had never even crossed my mind. I was simply terrified for my own personal safety, especially because my perpetrator had shown no remorse. Quite the opposite, he had sent the Title IX grievance form, which contained my personal information, to a group of fellow students, denying the allegations outright. This, according to the Title IX Office, did not constitute retaliation, since the form is not confidential.
My perpetrator was also able to substantially cut away at the provisions in the No Contact order that banned him from spaces on campus that I used. I was deluged with a series of No Contact orders, some updated in the course of mere hours. (According to the University No Contact Orders FAQ, “If circumstances change, the University administrator issuing the mutual No Contact Order may revisit the Order. If adjustments are deemed necessary, both parties to the Order will be consulted.”)
Being on campus felt like a living nightmare: I was sharing a dining hall with people who were still interacting with someone who had strangled me.
I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone, lest they be called in by Title IX as a witness. Less than a month after filing my complaint, I left campus, driven away by the hostility and backlash that I received for reporting my trauma. I lived with friends off-campus for much of the proceedings.
Meanwhile, the Title IX proceedings continued. For months, I was forced to suffer through multiple interviews where my brain was picked for every detail that I could remember about those traumatic events.
My interviews became interrogations.
I was asked, repeatedly, about where my perpetrator’s limbs were positioned during strangulation. I told the investigators, repeatedly, that my perpetrator’s hands were around my neck. I told them how his knee had forcefully pinned my thigh to the bed. Still, I was questioned about what he was doing with the rest of his body. I answered that I couldn’t remember where the rest of his limbs were because I was trying to focus on getting oxygen into my lungs. This didn’t seem to satisfy my interviewers. I was being forced to describe what was going on around me in the room at the time that I was being strangled. And when I couldn’t remember, I felt shamed.
In the days leading up to my initial interview, I experienced a series of panic attacks complicated by asthma attacks. I was sick during my interview and was barely able to speak. After the interview, I lost my voice for three days. A month later, I received an email about a second interview with investigators, which caused a similar effect: my body shut down again, and I experienced panic attacks, migraines, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. The memories of the physical trauma during my assault, and the anxiety that some of my peers were out to get me, manifested physically. I was paying for the possibility that my perpetrator would get dismissed from campus with both my mental and physical health. The investigators interrogated me to the point that I considered ending my own life.
I did not feel like I could continue with the investigation. I needed another option, so I asked to be allowed to pursue an alternate resolution, where a University official mediates a settlement between the two parties. Because of the severity of my case, the University had initially barred me from pursuing alternate resolution. Only after petitioning a senior administrator was I allowed to start the process.
My request was simple: I asked that my perpetrator agree to never be housed in the same location as me, and to never be in the gym at the same time as me. He declined both requests. If we had come to the terms he agreed to, the person who had strangled me, who had brought me within an inch of losing consciousness, would be allowed to be in the same building as me, at the same time. I was beyond terrified. The alternate resolution didn’t seem like it would lead to any acceptable resolution, so I felt that I had no other option but to continue with the original investigation, even though it was deeply psychologically and physically draining. I abandoned the alternate resolution and continued pursuing the disciplinary process.
Five months after I filed my complaint (long past the 90 days the Title IX office says it aims to resolve cases in), my hearing date was finally set. Soon I learned that the past five months of depression, anxiety, and PTSD were not over. At my hearing, I would be interrogated anew. Over those four days, I would be forced to relive the incident in terrifying detail: the very thing that had caused the depression, anxiety, and PTSD which led me to seek emergency support because I thought of ending my life on multiple occasions.
I recall being told by my University-contracted lawyer that because I did not have photo or video evidence, or a corroborating witness, that it would be hard to prove my case at the hearing and my chances of ensuring my safety were no better than a coin toss. I was effectively told that because I could not produce porn by filming an act of sexual misconduct, or invite in a voyeur during my strangulation, my perpetrator might not be found responsible.
My perpetrator is not worth decimating my mental and physical health. Even if my perpetrator were found responsible, there is no guarantee that he would be dismissed from campus. Even if he were dismissed from campus, he is still a harm to society. There was no outcome that would result in adequate justice.
Once again, I tried the alternate resolution process. My only goal was that my perpetrator agree to stay away from me. After many days of back-and-forth and word-mincing, I was finally able to push the alternate resolution through. Throughout the process, I was forced to interact with my perpetrator. The fact that I did not have to communicate with him directly and our interactions were mediated through a third party did not negate that I was still interacting with him, something I had never wanted to do again. When I asked that he simply agree to never strangle me again, he declined. He took no accountability or responsibility for his actions. He is still free to roam around campus wherever he wants.
The bystanders who chose to support my perpetrator freely roam campus too. They are all graduate students responsible for teaching undergraduate classes at Princeton. These people are supposed to ensure the safety of Princeton students by being mandatory reporters of sexual assault and harassment, yet they failed to do so in my case.
I have one friend who is an undergraduate, and when I came to him with what was happening, he showed a lot more understanding than any of the graduate students. This friend of mine had no unique training in Title IX process – he simply had the benefit of being part of the undergraduate community where, in my experience, sexual misconduct is talked about more frequently.
The University has a duty to educate all students, but especially graduate students, about the signs of Title IX violations. As a domestic graduate student, the only sexual misconduct training that I received was through an online module. International graduate students in my year were required to attend an in-person orientation event on Title IX violations, but it may not be enough.
Graduate student orientation must include in-person sexual misconduct training for both domestic and international graduate students, and it should be designed to make students understand the severity of these acts. The orientation should strive to make all students more trauma informed. Conversations about sexual misconduct need to continue in the graduate student community after orientation. All students need to be educated about harmful attitudes such as the bystander effect, rape culture, and victim blaming.
The University needs to fix its processes for dealing with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Though there are many clauses in the University Sexual Misconduct Policy that are written to “protect” students who report in good faith, my experience taught me that these clauses don’t work.
I sought help from the Title IX office. Instead of helping me, the Title IX process ripped my mental, emotional, and physical well-being to shreds. As a student who reported in good faith, I was not protected. And I’m not alone. According to the SHARE website, during the 2016–2017 school year, 16 percent of Princeton students experienced some form of sexual misconduct, which is probably an underestimate given sexual misconduct is often underreported. The University might like to pretend the process is now more humane and fair. I know that’s not the case. Princeton needs to do so much better.
Vanessa is a pseudonym used by a current Princeton graduate student. The ‘Prince’ made the decision to publish this op-ed anonymously due to privacy and safety concerns.
Editor’s Note: In the process of publishing this piece, the ‘Prince’ took several steps to corroborate the author’s account of her interactions with the University, including reviewing the author’s written communications with Title IX administrators. The ‘Prince’ did not independently verify Vanessa’s allegations of domestic violence, her conversations with peers, or her attorney.
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